Black-box theater productions often aim to fill a niche left behind by region's bigger productions.
Amid Sarasota's blockbuster creative outlets resides a smaller, funkier venue that aims to stay that way.
At Urbanite Theatre, you’ll find creative, out-of-the-box shows “written by the next generation of playwrights that write culturally and socially relevant material,” says Brendan Ragan, the theater's co-artistic director. "These are the people who are on the verge of fame.”
This season is called Radiance and includes themes that range from an Irish immigrant looking to make it as an American writer to a wake for a drag queen. All the plays are staged in the theater's 75-seat venue at 1487 Second Street, a black box that offers directors flexibility in staging.
Ragan says the hiatus brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic gave Urbanite Theatre a chance to “reflect, reorganize and polish our model and policies to be better for all,” referring to a $300,000 fundraising initiative to assist in the move to a five-day workweek; raising the minimum wage so all actors are paid at Equity Union scale "and interns earning a decent living."
“All of which will bring patrons a better theater experience, while ensuring actors of all backgrounds get a fair shake in the business.”
Over the summer, as a means of satisfying an urge to perform safely amid COVID-19, Urbanite hosted outdoor play readings at both Hermitage Artist Retreat and at Selby Botanical Gardens at Spanish Point. Eventually, weather brought those outdoor productions to a halt. Still, the group has kept busy.
Another creative production offered during the pandemic was called Safe House - an interactive, walk-through experience. The production did not feature a traditional theater seating, there were no live performers and could be seen only by four people indoors at Urbanite.
"We also hosted an online, female playwright festival that was a playwright contest celebrating women in theater,” said Ragan, adding Urbanite received 300 national submissions. “We whittled the submissions to three finalists and they had only a week of development to put it together. It was our part in leveling the playing field,” noting that most playwrights are mostly men.
A gem emerged. "A Skeptic and a Bruja" will be a full production this year at Urbanite and tells the story of Priscilla who buys a home in the middle of nowhere with hopes of turning it into a lucrative bed and breakfast. When she starts having paranormal experiences, she calls Sam and Jess from a hit ghost-hunting show to help. No one is prepared for the haunting they encounter thereafter. The play is a world premiere and written by Rosa Fernandez.
Performers, writers and crew have lined up a list of performances, including the upcoming show, "At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen" on Oct. 29 - Dec. 5. Written and performed by Terry Guest, the play features a drag star in rural Georgia who welcomes the audience to her wake after recently dying of AIDS complications.
"This show opens our season and is one of those rare productions that is immensely funny and joyful while exploring complex, meaningful cultural matters," Ragan said. "It's the perfect show to re-open with after what we've all been through over the last 18 months. Even as it contemplates death, it's full of life. ''
Ragan will directs another show in the season called "The Smuggler" about an Irish immigrant who wants to be a writer in America but struggles to find his path. This show's theme is appealing because the actor plays 10 characters and uses 9,000 words of rhyming verse. “It’s special because it tells the story of coming to America from an immigrant and his perspective. It has twists, turns, and is a mysterious story that is dark and funny at the same time,” says Ragan.
Looking ahead to their upcoming season, Ragan says he and his co-artistic director, Summer Wallace, expect their new season to be sensational. “We started Urbanite in 2015 and recognized at the time that while Sarasota has a tremendous arts and culture scene, there was a niche left unserved, and we realized contemporary plays in a black box theater would be a perfect fit. When we opened we sold out to a full house and the response from the patrons was what took you so long to start this?''
Small, intimate theatre in a black box format is their product, and Urbanite wants to stay that way. "We don’t want to grow so big that we have to find new, bigger home. It would change both the product and what we produce. Small makes us special. We have to appeal to a smaller slice of the overall pie, and keep our theater at 75 seats vs. 500 or more like other venues,” he said.
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